The creation of the National Food Strategy and what it might mean for food and drink manufacturers was one of the issues that consumed much of the attention of the very talented FDF team l led until the end of 2021. Across the food and drink industry and its critics and commentators, goodness knows how much energy and brainpower has been spent analysing the possible proposals and how to react to them. With the strategy’s publication today, it will be a rather moot point how much of that investment was worthwhile.
The popular view – and certainly that of the critics – has been that the strategy is ‘a huge disappointment’ or ‘a colossal missed opportunity’. If you are a campaigner hoping for a major intervention on obesity, diet or the environment, that reaction is not a surprise. It is most definitely true that the strategy is very different from that which might have been expected when Michael Gove envisioned it or from the work of Henry Dimbleby and his independent review of food and drink policy.
Yet the events of the past three years make this outcome predictable and – in many areas – rather sensible. The pandemic and its consequent global supply chain impacts, the UK’s exit from the EU and the very serious dislocations caused by the conflict in Ukraine have combined to wreak havoc on the global food system. To take just one of these effects: the war in Ukraine has left 12% of the calories normally consumed across the world unavailable to the West and across Africa and Asia. Take this together with rampant food price inflation in train before the start of 2022 and it is a toxic combination of developments to give every government pause for thought before any ambitious policy intervention.
So today’s announcement was long in analysis of what has already been done, full of linkages to other UK Government policies – in particular on Levelling Up, free trade and combating the rising cost of living. There were important but unspectacular moves on skills and innovation. There is a moderately concerning new initiative on data transparency designed to yield information that will monitor progress on health outcomes and net zero. It looks onerous and potentially unworkable for SMEs.
But, in summary, I would argue that the horses of most food and drink players will remain resolutely unfrightened. In these very tricky times that is, I think, a good thing.
Which is not to say there is nothing about which you should be concerned. Here are three points for business to ponder:
- Though action on the environment and health have been scaled back, they have not been deleted and may yet resurface in the imminent Health Disparities White Paper.
- Henry Dimbleby’s proposals remain on the record as the most ambitious interventions on obesity and the environment ever contemplated (if not accepted) by a UK Government. Future Secretaries of State could return to them.
- Food and drink businesses must think about its own unsolicited actions that can be taken even in the current difficult economic circumstances. After the next Election, Ministers will still be confronted – probably – by the need for even more pressing action on obesity and the environment. If business has done nothing to meet these challenges at that point it may be clobbered – and it would probably deserve it.